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Monthly Archives: April 2016

Not Just Another Pretty Face

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We tend to think of such modern conveniences such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to be inventions of our generation; but in fact they go back to the 1940s.  Bluetooth was itself named after the 10th century Danish king Harald Bluetooth, who united Danish tribes into a single kingdom and introduced Christianity to his people (its name was chosen to imply that it would similarly unite communication protocols into a common standard).

So, what do the following three things have in common:  A young Jewish woman by the name of Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, born in 1914 in Vienna, Austria; the spread-spectrum technology that enables Wi-Fi, CDMA & Bluetooth; and a Hollywood starlet discovered in Paris by Louis B. Mayer in 1937?  Quite a lot, in fact; because the woman born in Austria was otherwise known as Hedy Lamarr, inducted posthumously into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014 for developing technology useful for a radio guidance system for torpedoes, the concept behind Bluetooth, Wi-Fi & CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) and now used for entertainment and communication around the globe.

Lamarr, who became known as “the most beautiful woman in Europe”, was the only child of a prominent upper-class Jewish family.  At 18, she married Friedrich Mandl, reputed to be the third wealthiest man in Austria and an arms dealer who made a killing during the wars (in both senses of the word), in the proverbial bed with both Mussolini and the Nazis.  Lamarr would attend lavish dinner parties and business meetings with her husband as he networked with scientists and those involved in military technology, and her intelligent mind soaked up the information, nurturing her scientific talents.  Lamarr escaped her controlling and jealous husband by disguising herself as a maid and fleeing to Paris, where she obtained a divorce.  There she met Louis B. Mayer, who was scouting for European film talent.  In 1938 she made her American film debut in “Algiers”, but because of her beauty, she was often typecast as a seductress; to alleviate the boredom, she set up an engineering room in her home and turned to applied sciences and inventing.  With the outbreak of World War II, she wanted to help in the war against the Germans, particularly in improving torpedo technology.  She met a composer, George Antheil, who had been tinkering with automating musical instruments; together they came upon the concept of “frequency hopping”:  Until then, torpedoes guided by radio signals could be jammed and sent off course just by tuning into their broadcasting frequency and causing interference; hopping frequencies would enable torpedoes to reach their target before their signal could be locked down.

Hedy Lamarr - Austrian-Actress-Invents-Control-DeviceIn classic Hollywood-portrayal style, the US Navy wasn’t interested in a technology developed by a beautiful actress and a musician in some suburban home.  I find the Stars and Stripes article above very telling, as to their views of a pretty face actually being smart too; its tone is quite condescending from beginning to end.  The US military didn’t apply the groundbreaking technology for another 20 years, until the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.  That same technology serves as the basis for our modern communication technology, enabling many people to use broadband simultaneously without interfering with each other; such situations as portrayed between Doris Day and Rock Hudson in “Pillow Talk” are unthinkable today, and all because of Hedy Lamarr.

So the next time you’re sitting in a café using Wi-Fi next to someone else on their own cell phone, give a wink to the memory of Hedy Lamarr.

Hedy Lamarr 3

 

The Extraordinary Life of Zitkala-Ša

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What makes this person worthy of notice is not simply the accomplishments of their life as a writer, author, musician, composer, editor, teacher, and successful political activist, as well as having the honours of both being buried in the Arlington National Cemetery and having a Venusian crater named in their honour (Bonnin), but the fact that this person was a Native American woman born in a time when American indigenous peoples were still being trampled down, forced into assimilation, ignored, exploited and abused by the insurgents to their lands – the palefaces – and a time when even white women in general had no say in public life.

Born in 1876 as Zitkala-Ša (Sioux for Red Bird) in South Dakota, before the age of seven her family and tribe were driven by white men from their lands “like a herd of buffalo”; her uncle and younger sister (among many others in the tribe at the time) were sick, and died on the way or on arrival at their new territory1.  Her father died shortly thereafter.  She was taken from her mother at the age of eight to be educated in a Quaker school for three years.  Throughout her life she showed spirit, defying the prevailing trends of the dominant white culture which tried to suppress, supplant or kill off any signs of independent, indigenous cultures (she was also given a white name, Gertrude Simmons-Bonnin – the latter being the name given to her future husband, a Yankton Indian by the name of Captain Raymond Talefase Bonnin).  Not all of her education was a misery, however:  She learned to speak publicly, to read, write, and to appreciate a variety of musical styles; in 1891 she returned to white man’s education, studying the piano and violin, and began teaching music; by 1895 she was setting her mark, when she gave a speech about women’s inequality.  She earned her first diploma in that year, and began gathering native American legends and stories, translating them first to Latin, then English.

Zitkala-Ša, Credit - Charcoal by S Campos, Flickr

Credit:  Charcoal by S Campos, Flickr

 

From 1897 to 1899 she played violin with Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music.  Eventually she returned to the reservation where her mother still lived, and the poverty and gradual encroachment of white settlers on Indian allotted lands dismayed her, reminding her of the chasm between who she was, and the world around her.  She joined the Society of American Indians in 1911; it was dedicated to preserving the Native American way of life, while at the same time (ironically) fighting for full American citizenship.  Eventually she saw fruits of her political efforts, through the congressional passing of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934; she continued to work toward civil rights and equality until her death in 1938.

To read more about her fascinating life, click on the following links:

Wikipedia:  Zitkala-Ša

Amazon Kindle: Zitkala-Ša

1 American Indian Stories, by Zitkala-Ša

The Immortality of Henrietta Lacks

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Henrietta Lacks, Immortal HeLa CellsBorn in 1920 as Loretta Pleasant, when her mother died giving birth to her 10th child and the father could not support the family, the children were divided among relatives to be raised.  Loretta, who became known as Henrietta, was sent to live with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks, who lived in a two-storey log cabin (former slave quarters) on the tobacco plantation of her white great-grandfather.  After having five children with her first cousin, whom she married after their first two children were born, she died at the age of 31 of cervix cancer.

What is most remarkable about her life is something she never knew:  During the diagnosis of her cancer, done at Johns Hopkins (the only hospital near her home that would treat black patients), her doctor, George Gey, was given samples of her cervix.  Before this time, any cells cultured from other cells would die within days.  Dr Gey discovered that her cells were remarkably durable, and prolific.  A selection of her cells was isolated and cultured (without her knowledge) into the immortal cell line that became known as HeLa Cells; they are still in use today, being the first human cells to be cloned successfully, in 1955.

HeLa cells are so prolific that if they land in a petri dish, they will take over; they have been used to create the vaccine against Polio, in research for AIDS, gene mapping, cancers and countless other projects; to date, scientists have grown over 50 million metric tonnes of her cells*, and there are nearly 11,000 patents involving these cells*.  Her name should be known, and as the godmother of biotechnology, her history deserves to be undusted!

For a fascinating book on this topic, see The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.

*For a more detailed article in the New York Times, click on the photo.

On Society vs. the Mind

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Albert  Einstein

 

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